I wrote California Dreamin.’ You know, The Mamas and the Papas. In ‘65 I ran away from the terror of my father’s fist and hopped a bus near Iowa City with dishwashing money shoved in my sock. I met Mama Cass outside a tent commune near Monterey a week later. She put a stamp of acid on my tongue and sang me hymnals until the sun rose. That’s how I know God is real.
It’s also how I became their around-town roadie before they’d even recorded a song or settled on a name. It didn’t last. I wasn’t any good at keeping tabs on guitars and tambourines. End of the road was the night I flipped the power off mid-set in the basement of a Haight-Ashbury cafe with Bill from the Fillmore watching. All I can say now is a voice told me to do it. It was deep and convincing and tickled my ear.
John understood enough to give me a ride to the bus station the next morning. I read poems out loud as he drove. That’s when he asked for a copy of the one I called “Stopped into a Church.”
“Hey that’s real nice,” John said. “Reach into the glove compartment and pull out a contract.”
I signed on three dotted lines against the dashboard waiting for the light to turn green somewhere near Post and Divisadero. We got it notarized at the train station post office, hugged like brothers and parted ways with peace signs to the air. Ten percent was the cut. Now I have two houses, a few top tens and books of poetry. There’s stocks and bonds and trust funds for all four of my kids (two marriages). My kin has generational wealth. I was anointed with a gift for words and driven by some spirit to speak them to a willing listener.
No. Down on Post and Divisadero that morning, with the bay fog still thick, this is what really happened: I gave all those words away for the weed John and I were smoking. I never saw a dime.
All my kids think I’m full of shit. So do the ex-wives. I couldn’t convince a single one. It’s the same with my time served in Vietnam. From Fort Lewis I made it all the way down the delta to Vinh Long Airfield, spent two weeks in the bush where I said a prayer under the forest canopy the night before I broke my ankle then watched it blow up to the size of a football. That’s how I learned about my low-grade hemophilia. I was still 18. Kids say that I would’ve been rejected by the draft board. Exes say I’d be told to stay home. But I didn’t know about the condition then.
Now the war is over. Two Papas are dead. Cass is gone. I don’t think much about any of that now. But those who do believe me say it’s a crime. That I’m supposed to still be mad and continue the fight for what I’m owed. Would you let such a thing twist you up? Would you let it all haunt the years? Or would you learn to love that demon of what-if? Tell me.
But what could I do? I was long gone from California the first time I heard that jingle-jangle, already back dishwashing, back in Iowa, and in the backseat of Buick sucking on the tongue of soon-to-be wife #1.
“Hey I wrote this,” I said when John sang that line about getting down on his knees.
She just put a finger to my lips. I consider that now to be a small blessing.
Saxon Baird is a writer hiding out in the North Georgia Mountains. His writing has appeared on The Atlantic, Vice, Juked, Maudlin House, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, 3AM, The Fanzine and elsewhere.